The Sapir/Whorf Hypothesis

Charles Nelson
Fall Semester, 2011
Academy for Life Long Learning

Three two-hour sessions:

WEDs: NOV 30 / DEC 7 / DEC 14
2 PM to 4 PM
Upstairs at The Willows
3115 Squalicum Parkway

Everything in BLUE is an active link.

Brief course description:         eMail the instructor
To what extent does your language determine the way you view the world? To what extent does it determine the way you live your life? Does language create culture or reflect culture? These questions are nearly as old as language, itself, and are among the most difficult of any that can be asked.
  We will consider this problem from the vantage of the Sapir/Whorf Hypothesis, which states that language does structure our culture, that it determines and limits the way we think, and that it also constrains behavior.
  Bring your thinking caps and skepticism - you'll need them.

MENU    . = recently added material.

 LAST UPDATE: 12-14-2011
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Language in the Brain  •MORE NEW•

John Lucy on Whorf

Hopi Grammatical Categories

Barnett on Innovation

Ancient History of the Pueblo
This fine National Park Service website reviews the prehistory of the pueblo people in the San Juan Valley region where some Hopi clans once lived.

Of Matters Hopi
This gallery will be used during the first day of class. It should give you an idea of what the Pueblo peoples are like and the sacred ceremonial cycle that is bound up in Whorf's linguistic analysis. More will be added here.

Common Sense PDF 0.6mb
This is a clearly written, common sense approach to the relationships between language, thought and culture. But its apparent simplicity may be deceptive.

Relativism PDF 0.6mb
The S-W Hypothesis has been consumed by the philosophical debates over relativism and is now mostly addressed through that perspective. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an excellent review of relativism and the S-W Hypothesis.

Whorf - The Next Generation
Moonhawk is a bit full of himself, but he has some excellent insights and makes for some very interesting reading.

A Neural Theory of Language  •NEW•
In this book, Jerome Feldman walks us through the development of a neural theory of language using easily understood language and clear examples.

Why Analogies Work
Analogy and metaphor are powerful tools of communication. Did you know they are also powerful tools for building memories? This article shows us how. It's very technical, but it is a good example of how the components of language can be mapped to specific structures and functions within the brain.
Get the experimental data here. PDF 4.4mb

Counterfactual Simulations
By Srini Narayanan, this 2010 article looks at one of the processes underlying Barnett's model of innovation, namely one of the sources of variation through which language and culture change. It maps different parts of this process to different regions of the brain.

The Brain from Top to Bottom  •NEW•
Presented by McGill University, these 12 presentations each occur in beginner, intermediate and advanced versions. They are well illustrated. The presentation "From Thought to Language" is somewhat dated and generalized, but excellent as far as it goes.


Role of Language According to RADIOLAB
This Radiolab podcast presents several striking examples that suggest the Sapir/Whorf Hypothesis is correct, at least in certain circumstances. Can we generalize from these broadly to language and culture?   If RadioLab does not work.

Course Outline   PDF 404k

The Difficulty of Analyzing Language
   The view from inside is great
   There is no view from the outside
   All deep analysis is circular
   Nevertheless such analysis is useful
   It will change the way you see the world
Approaches to Understanding Linguistic Causation
   Religion, Philosophy, Psychology, Neurobiology,
       Sociobiology, Sociology, Sociolinguistics
   Linguistic Anthropology
      Language & Culture
      The Sapir/Whorf Hypothesis
The History of the Hypothesis
   Edward Sapir
   Benjamin Lee Whorf
   The semantic contents of a language
   Linking semantics and culture
   Linking semantics and human behavior
   The many subsequent lives of the Hypothesis
The Hopi vs. Western Civilization
   New York is the arena
   Ruth Benedict sets the stage
   Whorf asks Sapir for suggestions
   Hopi Culture as found in a bar in New York
   Thumbnail sketch of Pueblo culture
   Thumbnail sketch of the Hopi
   Understanding Hopi reality
   The Hopi ceremonial cycle
   How to compare to SAE (Standard Average European)
   Semantic analysis is the key
Demonstrations of Semantic analysis
   What the insurance adjuster learned of factory fires

5/27/2011. Ontario, CA. "Eric Leighton, 18, died in hospital, hours after the explosion in his shop class ... Police and fire officials said the students were using empty oil drums to make barbecues. Fire officials said they believed that the oil in the drum was peppermint oil, and that the vapours from the oil may have ignited.

   Other examples (I'm still deciding which to use)
Comparisons between Hopi and SAE
   Perception & classification of time
   Creation past vs Creating the world now
   Other examples if time permits
Linguistic Perceptions of Reality within a Culture
   Observations from advertising
   Observations from politics
How does change arise within languages & cultures?
   Innovation: the basis of linguistic & cultural change
   Get Summary of Barnett's Argument by Rigsby
   The individual mind as the point of origin
   What happens in the human mind
   How might Metaphor relate to Barnett's model?
   Transmission from the individual to society
   Influence of society on the individual
   Other things influencing the individual
     What does dyslexia have to do with innovation?
     Why does dyslexia persist in humans?
     Neurological research into dyslexia.
     Dyslexia and voice recognition. pdf
     What are epigenesis and methylation?
     The role of Epigenesis in human development
     The Epigenesis of Language
     Applying Epigenesis to Artificial Intelligence
Language in the Brain - Testing Sapir-Whorf
   Is there a difference between memory and language?
   Using language to study the brain
   Using the brain to study language
   Where does language reside in the brain?
      The organs of the brain
      Cells in and among the organs
         Behind Analogy & Metaphor
         Learning new colors  •NEW•
      Molecules and memory
      Molecules and speech
The Evolution of Linguistic Abilities  
   The example of the lie
   The evolutionary advantage of using lies
   The evolutionary advantage to detecting lies
   Logic as a linguistic structure
   Manipulating people by using logic
   The use of logical fallacy Get your fallacy list here!

Expect to see a few more additions and elaborations as the presentation is refined.

Does Culture Create Language?
In this interview, linguist Dan Everett suggests that the language of Piraha is a result of cultural necessity. If this is true, can the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis still be correct? Here is EVERETT'S ARTICLE on the subject. Here is a CRITIQUE of that work. And here is Everett's REBUTTAL of the critique. These works are technical (tough slogging), but they show just how slippery the reasoning must always be when so little is known about what actually happens in the brain.





©2011 by Charles M. Nelson
All rights reserved.